History has proven Edward Braddock, the officer sent to re-establish Britain's position in the Ohio Valley in 1755, to have been a terribly poor choice. Headstrong and arrogant, he had earned a reputation as a tough commander in suppressing a rebellion among Scottish highlanders in 1746. But in America, those same traits would hurt the British cause and ultimately cost Braddock his life.
Braddock's first mistake was to believe that the 2,400 men he led toward the Forks of the Ohio River in 1755 were enough to drive out the French. He rejected, therefore, an overture from the Ohio Indians (Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos) to join his forces. Tanaghrisson, the Iroquois representative, had warned Braddock that the Ohio Indians were negotiating with the French—and he was right. But they were interested only in securing their independence, and they were willing to join whichever European power acknowledged this ambition. But Braddock was not interested. His British regulars needed no help from these "savage" warriors, he said; his rejection of their offer of alliance drove the Ohio Indians more fully into the camp of the French.
Braddock's second mistake was to split his forces in half as he marched toward the Ohio. Impatient with the progress of his 2400-man army, complete with cannons and camp followers, he led an advance force of 1200 men toward the Forks while the remainder slogged behind with the supplies and artillery. His forward column met little resistance, and therefore he assumed that he would almost walk into an abandoned French fort—but he was wrong. On 9 July, a few miles outside Fort Duquesne, he was ambushed by a French force of about 1000 fighters. Roughly two-thirds of these were Indians—Ottawas who had traveled from Canada with the French, plus the Ohio Indians that had joined the French after Braddock rejected them. The British troops, hemmed in on a narrow road and taking fire from all sides from enemies hidden in the surrounding trees, fell back in confusion. When Braddock was shot from his horse, the British fled. In this disastrous "Battle of the Wilderness" (also known as the Battle of the Monongahela), the British suffered more than 900 casualties. Braddock died of his wounds just a few days later.
While Braddock blundered in the Ohio Valley, other problems doomed British efforts elsewhere during the first year of the war. William Shirley, the governor of Massachusetts, was named general and ordered to lead an army of provincial militia against Fort Niagara. (Guarding the river linking Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, the French fort protected the flow of supplies to French settlements and forts in western Canada.) But Shirley was no real general and his militiamen were not real soldiers. During the march toward Canada, Shirley's men deserted by the dozens. When Shirley failed to adequately arrange supplies, hunger and disease further decimated his army. By the time they reached the Great Lakes, his army of 2,500 men had been reduced to 1,700, and they were forced to hunker down for the winter at Fort Oswego on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario and await the spring thaw before resuming the campaign.
In New York, British commander William Johnson, ordered to capture Crown Point at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, experienced greater success. As Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the northern colonies, he had built a solid relationship with the Mohawks—perhaps the most powerful of the six nations of the Iroquois League—and he drew upon them now in a building his army. At the Battle of Lake George, he scored a victory of sorts when his force of Mohawks and provincials drove a French army from the field. He next built Fort William Henry at the base of Lake George, guarding access to the Hudson River. But he never reached Crown Point, failing to achieve his primary objective. And of greater importance, in the aftermath of the Battle of Lake George, his Mohawk allies abandoned the campaign. In their first encounter with the French forces, they had discovered that their Canadian cousins were fighting on the other side and resolved to avoid further killing of their own people. The loss of these critical allies would hinder British military efforts in the region for the next several years.
The first year of the war also revealed that in many respects Britain's North American subjects were more of a liability than an asset to the war effort. The colonists proved unreliable soldiers, and their widely dispersed settlements were difficult to defend. Moreover, failures on the battlefield were more than matched by problems of finance, supply, and politics in the colonial capitals. America's colonial assemblies had, over the course of the eighteenth century, won control over all legislation relating to money in the colonies. While the British government in London appointed the colonial governors, with significant powers, these powers were largely neutralized by the locally elected assemblies' control over taxes and spending. And these assemblies were not about to be told how to spend their money now, even if the British officers and soldiers making the requests were guarding American frontiers from French and Indian incursion.
The British cause was further weakened by arguments between British regulars and provincial troops over rank and comparative performance. British military rule placed all British regular officers above provincial officers; that meant even a lowly ensign in the British army outranked a provincial colonel. Provincial officers and the men they commanded were offended—especially since they believed that provincial troops in the field performed as well, if not better, than their professional British counterparts.
In other words, the British military effort was a multifaceted mess by 1756. In the meantime, the French had developed strategies far better suited to their resources and ambitions. Most important, the French proved more skilled in using Indian allies. The governor-general of New France, the marquis de Vaudreuil, quickly embraced the Indian tribes Braddock had spurned. By turning loose the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo, along with the Ottawa from Canada, to attack frontier settlements, Vaudreuil was able to preserve his French regulars for campaigns against the most critical British posts. The wisdom of this approach was illustrated most dramatically in 1756, when French and Indian forces attacked the depleted provincial forces under Governor/General Shirley at Fort Oswego. After enduring a four-day siege in August, the British surrendered the fort—their only stronghold on the Great Lakes—and were forced to retreat to Albany.
But there were also risks inherent in the French approach, and these were also illustrated at Oswego. Indian allies slaughtered the wounded British soldiers they found in the fort infirmary and plundered the British corpses left dead on the field. In addition, they seized a number of British troops and carried them off for ransom. Vaudreuil accepted all this as price worth paying for the manpower, and the terror, these Indian allies represented. But many of the other French officers were disgusted by these unconventional practices, especially General Montcalm, newly arrived to assume command of all French forces in North America. Montcalm therefore convinced the French government to join the British in paying large ransoms to redeem these hostages. And he began lobbying for the removal of Vaudreuil from his position as governor-general.
The benefits and risks inherent in the French approach were even more powerfully illustrated the following year in the French attack on Fort William Henry. The fort lay at the north end of the Hudson River, at the base of Lake George. It served as a critical gatekeeper for the flow of troops between Albany and the Saint Lawrence River. The British realized this and therefore stationed a well-provisioned force of 2400 men within its reinforced walls. But the French also recognized the fort's importance; in the summer of 1757, Vaudreuil ordered Montcalm to seize it.
Montcalm marched an army of 8500 French regulars and Canadian militia from Fort Carillon to Fort William Henry in July 1757. More than 2000 Indians joined the war party as well. Throughout Canada, word had spread of the high ransoms paid for British captives taken at Oswego, encouraging more Indian warriors to join the fight in hopes of capturing valuable hostages. It was consequently a mighty—but in Montcalm's eyes, also unnerving—coalition he positioned outside the walls of the British fort on 3 August. Montcalm skillfully employed the classic strategies of siege warfare. By 6 August, his trenches were close enough to the fort's walls that he could begin an effective artillery assault. By 9 August, realizing that their situation was hopeless, the British surrendered. After pledging not to fight for 18 months, the British soldiers were allowed to keep their small arms and leave the fort unharmed. But Montcalm's Indian allies had a different agenda; as a column of British soldiers and miscellaneous civilians marched out of the fort on 10 August, the Indians attacked, killing more than 150 and taking 500 captives.
It was both the war's high point and the beginning of the end for the French. With Fort William Henry captured, France now controlled a perimeter stretching from Lake George to Fort Duquesne. But the French-Indian coalition that had made this success possible was about to unravel. The Indians returned to their villages loaded with plunder and captives that could be richly ransomed. At the same time, however, they carried home with them the smallpox that had been ravaging the fort, leading to disastrous outbreaks of the deadly disease. They would not return to the field in significant numbers for more than two years. Nor would the French try very hard to recruit them. In the aftermath of the massacre outside Fort William Henry, Montcalm complained further to his king of Vaudreuil's unorthodox use of Indian allies; consequently, in 1759, Montcalm was given complete control over all military operations in New France and he soon de-emphasized the role of Indian fighters in his strategy.
Other factors would converge to shift the tide of the war by 1758. For starters, in 1756 the traditional European alliances were reversed when Britain signed a pact with Prussia and France signed a defensive agreement with Austria. After luring Austria away from its former alliance with Britain, France felt strong enough to attack British holdings in the Mediterranean. One of the most important of these was the island of Minorca, which France captured on 28 June.
This began the "Seven Years' War"—the European extension and expansion of the French and Indian War. In addition to seizing Minorca, France mobilized thousands of troops along the English Channel. But it never intended an invasion of Britain; it only sought to frighten the British into territorial concessions in North America, the Caribbean, and India. What France did not anticipate was Prussia's invasion of Saxony—a protectorate of Austria's Queen Maria Theresa—triggering the treaty obligations of both Britain and France to commit military resources to the European mainland.
The fall of Minorca, new commitments on the continent, and the mobilization of French troops along the English Channel terrified Britain's government and public. King George II had to respond, so in June 1757, he dissolved the current government and accepted a new ministry that included his old enemy, William Pitt, as secretary of state.
Pitt immediately set about imposing greater discipline—and spending far more money—on the war effort in America and in Europe. He provided millions of pounds worth of assistance to Britain's ally, Frederick of Prussia, to strengthen his army so that it could tie down more French troops on the continent. Next Pitt rapidly expanded his navy and increased its presence at Gibraltar; by controlling this gateway to the Atlantic, Britain could create supply problems for French forces in North America. Pitt also asked the colonies to raise an additional 23,000 provincial troops. And, more importantly, he announced that these new provincials would be paid directly by the crown. London would foot the bill for these new soldiers; the uncooperative colonial assemblies would not be asked for a dime. American assemblies, and the taxpayers they represented, were understandably pleased—and even more so when all these new troops needed to be outfitted. Pitt again proved generous in awarding lucrative contracts to American suppliers.
Pitt's policies had an immediate impact on American attitudes toward the war. Bickering over finance and supply were eliminated; the morale-draining quarrels between Parliament and American provincial assemblies came to an end. To strengthen the growing spirit of cooperation, Pitt further announced that provincial officers would no longer be treated as inferiors in rank. A British regular colonel would still outrank an American provincial colonel, but the American colonel would outrank all junior British officers. British regulars were displeased, but Pitt defended the decision by arguing that the war in America was an all-British endeavor—that Englishmen and Americans were engaged in shared enterprise on behalf of the British Empire. And Americans responded enthusiastically to the more inclusive vision. They enlisted in provincial militias in record numbers; by the summer of 1758, there were about 50,000 British and provincial troops in the field in North America—a number equal to the entire white population of New France.
While successful in improving American morale, Pitt's strategy did not bear fruit immediately on the battlefield. In fact, despite outnumbering the French by more than four to one, the British suffered a humiliating defeat at Fort Carrillon on 8 July 1758. The French commander Montcalm joined his men in felling trees to construct a fifty-yard tangle of logs and branches outside the walls of the forts. And the British, rather stupidly, tried to storm the barricade rather than waiting to destroy it with canon fire. As a result, British infantry were mowed down by Montcalm's men, firing from the fort. Almost 2000 British soldiers were killed or wounded before the attack was called off, leaving Montcalm to celebrate a famous victory.
But in the following months, the British rebounded by scoring major victories at Louisbourg (on Nova Scotia) and Fort Frontenac (at the northwest end of Lake Ontario). The first gave Britain increased control over French supply lines down the Saint Lawrence River. The second made French resupply of their forts deep in the interior all but impossible.
Britain's greatest victory, however, occurred at Fort Duquesne—where it all began. More careful planning ensured that Braddock's arrogant disaster of 1755 would not be repeated. This time, roughly twice the number of troops (5000) would be dispatched under General John Forbes, and the Ohio Indians (primarily Delaware and Shawnee) would be courted rather than dismissed. A series of negotiations between British officials in Pennsylvania and the Ohio Indians, and eventually the Iroquois as well, culminated in the signing of a treaty at Easton in October 1758. In the treaty, the Ohio Indians, formerly allied with the French, pledged peace in return for a series of British concessions. These included a promise from Pennsylvania officials to renegotiate the terms of the Walking Purchase, through which the Iroquois had ceded over 750,000 acres of Delaware land to Pennsylvania in 1737. The British also agreed that there would be no permanent settlement west of the Alleghenies. A trading post would be allowed at the Forks, but white farmers would be banned from the region.
These were major concessions—but concessions consistent with the approach of William Pitt, who had committed to winning the war at all costs... And the strategy worked. In November 1758, Fort Duquesne was abandoned. With their supply lines cut, and without the support of their Indian allies, the French position became hopeless. With 5000 British and provincial troops en route, the French commander ordered the great fort at the Forks demolished before retreating northwest to Fort Machault.
After the British victories at Louisbourg, Frontenac, and Duquesne, the French position in North America quickly collapsed. On 26 July 1759, the French were driven from Fort Niagara at the west end of Lake Ontario by an army led by British General John Prideaux. The Ohio Valley was now completely beyond French reach; the few posts they retained south of Lake Erie were isolated. On the same day, the French were forced to abandon Fort Carrillon on Lake Champlain. A week later, with British General Jeffery Amherst in pursuit, the retreating French also destroyed their fort at Crown Point.
Critical to the British victory at Fort Niagara was the participation of the Iroquois. After the Battle of Lake George in 1755, the Mohawk and most other members of the League had adopted a stance of neutrality. But now, with the war's outcome increasingly apparent, they sought to reestablish themselves as allies of the British. Perhaps as many as 1000 warriors joined Prideaux's forces in the field. Just as important, they convinced many tribes attached to the French to abandon their alliance.
By the end of the summer of 1759, the once-mighty French Empire was reduced to a couple of positions along the Saint Lawrence River in Canada. The most formidable of these was Quebec. There Montcalm had 15,000 men tucked behind the city's well-fortified walls. British Brigadier General James Wolfe, sent to take the city, led a larger army of 22,000. But unless he could force Montcalm out from behind the city walls, his numerical advantage would prove worthless. And if Montcalm held out until winter, Wolfe would have to retreat or face starvation once the Saint Lawrence froze over.
The story of Wolfe's victory, and the brilliant stratagem that made it possible, will be told soon enough. For now, we will note only that on 13 September 1759, the French were forced to abandon the city and retreat to their last stronghold of Montreal.
The British launched the final campaign of the war with every advantage on their side. The French were isolated at Montreal, their supply lines were cut, the British controlled access to the city from all directions, and the Iroquois were offering both military and diplomatic support. During the summer of 1760, a British army of 3000 moved west up the Saint Lawrence from Quebec; another army of 3500 marched north from Lake Champlain, while a third army of 11,000 sailed down the river from Lake Ontario. They met relatively little resistance, as the Iroquois traveled in advance of the British, convincing the Canadian Indians to abandon their alliance with the French. Governor-General Vaudreuil recognized that the situation was hopeless, and so he surrendered the city without firing a shot on 8 September 1760.
Britain's war against France would drag on for another two years in Europe, and there would also be further fighting in India, the Pacific, and the West Indies. But on the North American continent, the war was over—and the vast majority of the continent now belonged to Britain. The Treaty of Paris, ratified in 1763, awarded Britain Canada and all territory east of the Mississippi River. France retained only the city of New Orleans, plus the unsettled lands west of the Mississippi. In the same treaty Spain, France's ally, ceded Florida to Britain in exchange for the restoration of Cuba, which had been seized by Britain during the war. The treaty left Britain facing no significant European challenge to its control of North America.